Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review for "Canticle for Leibowitz"

History repeats itself. Walter Miller Jr. would agree. He takes the parallels between science and religion through the ancient, medieval, and modern periods and offers a retelling of this interaction in addition to the one we have, only after the world nearly destroys itself through nuclear war. Although still a pressing issue, nuclear war is less imminent on the United States than it was in 1959 when the book was written, however, his does not take much from the overall message. The three parts of the book are short narratives, usually involving a monk and some mission or conflict they struggle with, that characterize each period.

The first part begins after the Great Simplification where the humans left revolt and destroy any remnant of the civilization that threw them into such dark times, which is made parallel the burning of the libraries during the fall of Rome. The only institution seeking to preserve it are struggling monastic orders in the Catholic Church, now under “New Rome.” Miller then works through the minimum preservation of civilization through the book copying that occurred in the Dark Ages, the development of science as we know it in the Middle Ages, and the clash between the two that occurs in modern times.

Although many aspects of worship and church life are accurate (Latin is spoken throughout the book, certain canon laws are accurately portrayed, etc.), Miller makes monasticism to be primarily about preserving knowledge and using it properly. The mistake is common and serious. Monasticism was birthed by individuals desiring holiness. It has never been anything other than that. Christians did not have the option of martyrdom after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman empire, so they moved out to the desert to live ascetic lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience in loose communities of Christians living as hermits. In medieval times, some monasteries were growing wealthy and lost sight of their true purpose, so the Cistercian, Franciscan, and Dominican orders come about, which were all led by charismatic and saintly leaders. Thus, monasticism has come in many forms to fit certain needs in the church. Certainly, there were the Benedictine monasteries in the early Middle Ages (the order the monks in the book mostly resemble) and they still exist today, but there were also mendicant movements and eremitic movements dotting the church’s lifespan.

Aside from the cliche nuclear fallout subject, Miller gives a interesting story with characters to remember. A fair defense is given of religion’s role in the world, and its rocky relationship with the science. It’s worth noting that science was studied by monks in universities when they were solely religious institutions with theology as the “queen of the sciences,” and great scientific discoveries were made before it became an altogether separate discipline. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican monk. Augustine of Hippo started a monastic order. Blaise Pascal was a brilliant physicist that wrote wonderful theological works still read and quoted today. The two were not always on opposite sides of the aisle.

The question arises in the last part of the book that is the crux of the whole matter, science seeks to gain power over nature, but who or what will govern that power? Religion is the answer. Religion is like the old king that once ruled the city, but was driven out and taken over by those who forgot he ever existed as its ruler. The analogy holds in the faces of religious observance held by those who place their faith in science, and the seemingly atheistic conclusions it brings. Without the church’s robust morality and intense reflection on the most serious matters facing humanity, science is like a prodigal son still estranged and doomed to failure while separated. And as the story goes, the son will experience unnecessary suffering until the two are reconciled. The father was the one who let him go, but it was his personal life that changed little because of his son’s absence. However, it must be noted that science was born out of the work and cultivation of religious people, and in the darkest times it was the Church who carried the sealed tablets of the ancient world’s work, only to be opened and studied to grow into the sophisticated subject it is today. The study of God, then, is rightly called the queen of the sciences for it is by her that all knowledge finds its proper place.

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